The first time I saw Mayda performing, we were both sitting in a mildewy coffee shop basement in South Minneapolis enjoying one of Jim Walsh’s very first first Mad Ripple Hootenannies. It was a singer-songwriter showcase and most people were singing introspective folk ballads, but then here comes Mayda with a giant acoustic guitar strapped around her tiny body, strutting and spitting and sassing her way through her song with attitude and funky style. I was transfixed.
Off stage, the 30-year-old artist Mayda Miller is quiet, almost demure, and she speaks slowly and thoughtfully about her passion and her songs. But as soon as she gets up on stage she becomes a force to be reckoned with; she commands the stage with confidence and conveys the kind of star power and magnetism that can’t be taught.
I’ve been observing Mayda and talking to Mayda for almost a decade now, and at every step of her career I’ve wondered if this is the song or this is the show that will finally connect her with the larger audience she deserves. She’s got the chops, she’s got the voice, and she’s got the drive to keep creating and keep getting stronger and better, not only in her music career but also in her newfound passion of creating autobiographical theater. Her one-woman show, De’Mayda’d, had a successful two-night run at the Guthrie Theater, and she hopes to remount the show in 2016.
Though she’s hesitant to let on, Mayda also been dealing with some seriously life-altering changes in her personal life that keep threatening to throw her off her path.
This interview is the first time that Mayda has spoken publicly about her health, and the conversation comes at the end of a years-long personal struggle that also included an emotional journey to Korea to meet her birth parents.
Over the course of our interview we talked about her personal journey, her unrelenting resolve, and her singular goal to be an honest, genuine artist and person.
Andrea Swensson: When you got to the point that you wanted to put on this show, how did you go about thinking about what you wanted to express in that show and what you wanted it to tell people about yourself?
Mayda: I think that I got really inspired when I started working at the Guthrie Theater. That was a few years ago, actually more than a few years ago. And I just fell in love with putting something on stage. When I saw people just using their bodies and things around them that are more accessible, I thought, “I can do that.” I feel like I’ve done a lot of music already and I have enough material and I have enough drive and I have enough things that I would like to say that there is a place and a time that I can, I think I can, express this in a safe way.
You know, I’ve been touring for a long time and obviously I have—I’m crazy and I have issues, just like everybody—and one of those things is being adopted and trying to find my birth parents, and playing music at the same time, and all of the things that go along with that. Like, what do my parents hear and what do my parents in Korea think about me, and what I do? I wanna please them, and I wanna please myself at the same time, and that doesn’t always coincide. So there’s one thing that I, you know, I think about and try to make sense of, and it definitely spurs creativity in me.
What was it like for you to have gone through this experience that’s so intimately personal, and then have to get up in front of a room full of people and tell this story?
I think it’s the fact that I can’t lie. I can’t pretend. I mean, I can you know, it’s funny and it’s fun, but you can always tell when I’m pretending. Some people are really good at it obviously, but I’m not. And the only thing I have really is the truth, and myself, and I don’t really have the energy or the time to fake s**t anymore. And as I get older, I just don’t like wasting time. I like to be real and I like to connect with people on genuine levels, not just “Hey hi-five, good show, let’s go smoke, cool, we had a good night, see you later in Cincinnati, maybe.”
I want to hear more about your journey to Korea. One thing that really surprised me when we were talking before was not only did you decide to go to Korea to find your birth parents but you were also on tour.
And kind of balancing your life as a musician who tours and has to organize shows and show up places at certain times and perform and then going on this incredible journey to learn more about your family and yourself. What was that like for you?
It was overwhelming to say the least, and I’m still processing it. It’s going to be a life-long thing for me. People think that, you know, if you’re adopted and then you find your parents, “Oh then life is great, you know! Ya found ‘em! Let’s go hop in the sunshine.” It’s not. For me, it created more questions about myself and my future and my life and my other life—like I have an “other,” another life, that I could’ve had and that I do have. And that’s weird. But then I have this life here that’s totally different, with totally different people.
So I met my parents, and I kind of did the awkward Mayda thing like, “Do you guys play music? Well you know, I play music too. You don’t? Okay. Weird.” And you know, they didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Korean, so there was a translator there. Which totally breaks down the emotional connection. I didn’t understand what they were feeling ‘cause they didn’t smile once. When I walked in the room, my mother’s face was distraught. It didn’t come off as a positive thing. I don’t know exactly what she was thinking. But they were worried, they were sorry, they were crying, and I just sat there, with a million things going through my head. Like, do they look like me? Do we have the same eyebrows? Do we smile the same? Who are my brothers and sisters? Oh, they don’t know about me. I will remain a secret. What does that mean? So I have this other life that they’re not going to know about me, and I’m not supposed to tell people? I don’t know. Everything was so confusing. Oh, plus I have a gig I need to get to.
They’re like “Come, we can take you to our house out in the farm,” and I’m like, “But I have a gig,” which is like, I don’t know, I felt bad about that because this is my new family in a sense, but I have a job to do and like this isn’t just a family meeting. Plus a new chapter in my life. This is my work. So, I don’t know. I don’t know how to like sum it up into one sentence even.
You don’t have to.
You’ve mentioned a specific word a couple of times: judging people and being judged. Is that something you have a lot of experience with?
Tell me more about that.
I mean, I’m not like the cookie cutter of anything, physically or mentally or emotionally. I feel like there’s nothing normal about me, and that’s just me feeling the way I feel. I mean, I know people judge me because they say things to me. They message me. They text me, in good and bad ways. There’s so much coming at me about every aspect of my life. The way I look, what I do in life, and it comes from strangers, it comes from my family, it comes from friends. And that’s something that can be really hard to swallow, especially if it’s a negative judgment.
As you know, the under-running theme of the O.K. Show is health, and that touches on mental health and physical health and how we stay sane, and happy, and how music helps us to do that. I know that you’ve been on a big journey with your health over the last several years, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to talk about that a little bit, whatever you’re comfortable sharing.
It’s weird ‘cause I’ve been through so many emotional things and so many physical things. And one thing that I’ve developed in the past few years is Crohn’s disease, which has been a huge battle for me, and I didn’t quite understand it for a long time and didn’t really wanna believe it. Because I’ve got the haan and the drive and I’m stubborn. I’m the type of person also that’s like, you know, my body is going to take care of itself. You know, it’s programmed to deal with cells and things that come after it, that attack it. And you know, it’ll eventually heal or not or you know, do what it needs to do to keep on going. But, yeah, for some reason like, I’ve always had issues with my stomach and just kind of digestive stuff, it got really really bad in the past few years and I went to the doctor finally. I didn’t have insurance, but it got so bad that I was needed to, because it was affecting a lot of things and my performance and the way I looked. Which totally freaked me out.
And so I kind of ignored it and I kind of kept it a secret for a really long time and it got worse and worse and people noticed things and people said things. That’s where a lot of judgment comes in, and people ask questions and people suggest things, people assume things and you know, I kind of brushed it off for a long time. And sometimes it got really difficult, like, what the hell? You don’t even know me. Like, how can you say that? And even my close friends and family members are like, “What’s wrong with you?” I don’t have time sit around and analyze what you think about me. I’m doing music. I’m just trying to be happy, I’m just trying to do the right thing. At some points I’d think to myself, it’s not about me—this life isn’t about me, it’s about what I can do with other people for other people, and that’s what’s important, not about my health. But now the older I get, I’m like, if I can’t do the things I wanna do, because of my health, then there’s a problem.
What was the turning point for you?
I’m bad at hiding things. And I’m bad at lying and I don’t have time to, and I don’t have energy to. And I’ve learned that I’m not the cookie cutter person to cookie cutter human, and so there’s always going to be judgment but as long as I’m taking care of me in the best way I can, then that’s important. And health is important. And trying to take care of my Crohn’s is important. Especially now. And the older I get, the harder things get, you know: physically, mentally, and emotionally. So, it’s important to take care of things and be honest and true with people, and know you’re going to fail sometimes.
The O.K. Show, Episode One: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode Two: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode Three: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album
The O.K. Show, Episode Four: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz
The O.K. Show, Episode Five: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business
The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road